Back Of The House: The Fascinating Work of a Historic Gastronomist

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Sarah Lohman. [Photograph: William Heath]

Soon after entering Historic Gastronomist Sarah Lohman's New York home, I found myself drinking a vanilla cream soda made with baking soda and whipped egg whites. We raised our glasses in a toast, and drank down what ended up tasting like a warm, sweet saltwater flush. "Well, I'm not disgusted by it," she mused before checking over the circa-1880s recipe to make sure she portioned everything right.

Vanilla, Lohman explained, wasn't always so ubiquitous to the American palate, a factoid she picked up while working at a living history museum in Ohio. "Our year was 1848, and we were in costume, in character, five days a week, cooking period recipes in a wood-burning oven," she says. But because hand-pollination of the vanilla plant had only just been discovered, American cakes and cookies didn't yet have that splash of vanilla extract that's so common now. "Let's just say I developed a strong flavor identity of that year," Lohman says.

"Historic Gastronomist" is a title Lohman came up with to describe her mission of discovering American history through food, and using those findings to illuminate our current eating habits. "Molecular gastronomists, or modernists, use modern technology to advance cuisine and our knowledge of food," she explains. "I use history."

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"Cream Soda" [Photograph: Jaya Saxena]

Lohman's interest in food history began while she was working on her thesis at the Cleveland Institute of Art. A trip to a museum's "historic restaurant" proved frustrating once Lohman learned that the kitchen was using modern seasonings and techniques behind the scenes. She decided to open her own historic restaurant as her thesis, and eventually moved to New York and started teaching historic cooking classes at Brooklyn Brainery and The Old Stone House. Her blog, Four Pounds Flour, details her deep dives into the history of American dishes and food traditions. She calls it "the next best thing to time travel."

It's also the basis for Lohman's first book, set for release in spring of 2015, which is why she was cooking vanilla in the first place. The book will tell the story of American cuisine through eight flavors that define our food, like vanilla, curry powder, and Sriracha. Or garlic, which James Beard was popularized in the 1970s, thanks to his now-famous recipe for Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. "Garlic represents how we cook the way we want to see ourselves," Lohman explains. "Garlic came to America with the Italians, but they were seen as an isolationist ethnic group, resistant to becoming American, and offensive for that reason. No one wanted to cook like them. But in the '70s, people like James Beard and Julia Child brought this French Provencal style of cooking here. It was aspirational; we wanted to be like the French."

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James Beard's Chicken With 40 Cloves [Photograph: Jaya Saxena]

So just what can history teach us about our modern kitchen? Sometimes, it's about finding beauty in the innovations we left behind, and discovering that not all technology makes things easier. Lohman eschews bulky food processors for mortars and pestles, but wouldn't trade her immersion blender for the world. She also showed me two nutmeg graters, separated in production by over 75 years, but exactly the same in design. If it works, it works.

Lohman looks at the evolution of our food culture and sees how aspirational forces drove our dietary innovations to where they are today. "I won't insult convenience foods. We wanted less time in the kitchen," she says. Today, we have food processors and microwave dinners, but we also have bags of baby carrots, pre-washed spinach, and blocks of butter. "That's all convenience food," Lohman says. "We invented it so we could spend more time with our families, or to pursue our careers, among other reasons." It's only recently that we've evolved to create the luxury of cooking for pleasure.

One thing Lohman hopes to teach through her book and lectures (the next one is on chocolate with Masters of Social Gastronomy) is old-fashioned confidence in the kitchen, a skill she's developed through years of deciphering poorly-recorded historic recipes. "When I do programs, people ask me all the time, 'How do you know when it's done?' Cooking has been removed from our senses — now it's boiled down to an equation of time and temperature. But it's not done when the timer goes off—it's done when it smells done and looks done and feels done," she says.

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Warm Vanilla Bean Cakes [Photograph: Jaya Saxena]

So how does one make the jump from casual cook to food historian? Basically, the internet. Not only is it great for research, but starting a blog or website gets your work in the public sphere, and allows you to connect with other historians. You don't need a history degree, as long as you cite your sources (as Lohman puts it, "even non-academic writing is more fun when it's based on fact." Oh, and she's is looking for a fall intern, so that's a good place to start.

Before I left Lohman's house, I took my cream soda out of the fridge, hoping that it would taste better chilled. It did, slightly, but we both agreed that vanilla-laced saltwater is not the finest flavor from the past. Did our ancestors also think it was gross, or have our palates changed? We may never know, but we can sip in solidarity, 130 years later.

For more on Sarah and to see her upcoming events, check her website, Four Pounds Flour, or spend a few minutes watching Food.Curated's behind-the-scenes video from 2009.

About the author: Jaya Saxena is a writer and New Yorker living in Queens. You can follow her on Twitter @jayasax, and read more of her work at jayasaxena.com.

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